U.S. Postal Service is No Joke

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”. Those words aptly describe the American postal worker.

NASHVILLE, TN — Last week President Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that the Postal Service was a joke. He said if it didn’t raise its package rates four times, he would block a $10 billion loan from the CARES Act Congress passed last month.

Trump said the Postal Service is losing billions of dollars. It isn’t. Nor, as a rule, does it spend taxpayer’s dollars. It just needs a bridge loan to get through the pandemic just like the airlines and the cruise industry and hospitals. 

We asked Jim Sauber, Chief of Staff of the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), to set the record straight about postal workers and the service they provide to everyone at the same price no matter where they live. This interview has been edited for space.

Tribune: Can you describe the US Postal Service and the employee organizations that work for it? I think there are three or four different unions, aren’t there?

Sauber:  “That’s correct. The postal service has about 640,000 employees across the country. We operate in all 50 states, and just about every city and town in the country. We did about $71 billion dollars a year in sales before the pandemic hit, and we handle about 150 billion pieces of mail each year. Now we do 7- days-a-week package delivery. It’s been growing dramatically in recent years.”

Tribune: Is the postal service bankrupting the government?

“The Postal Service hasn’t received any taxpayer money in more than 40 years. For most of its history the post office was funded mostly by postage but with significant subsidies by taxpayers. In 1970 the Post Office Department was reorganized as the US Postal Service and at that time they phased out subsidies. 

Tribune: So it’s just the opposite of what President Trump said about you guys the other day?

“Unfortunately he’s been fed a lot of misinformation. He’s under the impression, for example, that the Postal Service’s primary problem is that it doesn’t charge enough for its shipping service, which is simply not true.

The Postal Service earned a profit of $8.3 billion dollars on its shipping business last year with over $20 billion dollars in revenues. It cost about $12 billion dollars to deliver those services so that was an $8 billion dollar surplus, so he’s just wrong.

In fact by law we’re not allowed to subsidize our competitive shipping services. The postal service postal service has a monopoly so it can provide universal service at affordable rates but that monopoly only applies to addressed letter mail. 

Everything else it deliveries faces competition but by law it can’t use its monopoly service to subsidize its competitive services. The Postal Regulatory Commission checks that every year and has concluded that the postal service is following the law.

The President and the administration are mistaken about these claims that the postal service is in trouble because we don’t charge enough for packages. 

We know the reality is that the pandemic is doing to the postal service the same thing it’s done to the airlines and the hotel industry. Our revenues are plummeting because we’ve had to close the American economy to deal with this pandemic. And so what we’ve been trying to do is get some relief from Congress to keep the postal service open and operating to survive this pandemic.

Like I said we usually don’t spend taxpayer money but in this case in order to preserve this institution it’s going to be necessary.“

Tribune: Why is that so important?

“It’s a vital network that links 160 million addresses and businesses every day just in the normal operating economy. We are an important part of the infrastructure of the country but during this pandemic it is doubly important. 

Besides delivering the mail, the postal service provides the infrastructure for running American democracy.

We’re delivering the relief checks coming from the Treasury; we’re delivering information from the Centers for Disease Control; we’re sending out face masks from HHS. Hopefully at some point we are going to be delivering test kits to people at home so we can get a regime of testing in place that will allow us to reopen the country.

Even outside the pandemic we deliver 4 million drug prescriptions per day, over 1.2 billion a year. We are part of the healthcare system already. 

We are also very important to electoral system in the United States. There are 8000 election boards in this country they all use us. We send out sample ballots, absentee ballots, and applications. They send out polling place notifications. The infrastructure of running our democracy goes through the postal service and even if there are not any changes in the law to deal with a pandemic, already 27% of all ballots are mailed out ballots. It’s a very common practice. In fact many states out West 100% of the voters vote through mailed out ballots.”

Tribune: Can you describe the postal service’s role in providing jobs for the economy?

“It’s been good for the economy, a good job producer of good middle-class jobs with union benefits. The postal workforce looks just like America. We have a slightly higher percentage of minorities in just about any category compared to the population at large but it’s also a major employer of veterans and women as well. It’s an incredibly diverse committed workforce.”

Tribune: Isn’t delivering packages for UPS and Amazon eventually going to force you to become just one more commercial delivery service?

“Private institutions have a goal of maximizing profits. Public institutions have social goals and we’re trying to serve the public interest. As it happens, the nature of the postal service in special last mile delivery is a natural monopoly. 

Having a public mission like that is not only a way to have equity for everybody. It’s also the most efficient way to deliver to everybody.

UPS or FedEx focus on companies where they can make lots of money. We deliver to places they don’t want to go. We go to rural neighborhoods. We go to inner city neighborhoods with not a lot of delivery density and those companies hand us off that delivery work. That’s fine. 

We make it possible for Amazon to get delivery anywhere in the country. If you’re in Utah or rural Texas and we’re not there, Amazon will deliver to you but they will charge an arm and a leg. So will Fex Ex and UPS because that’s what it will cost.

By having this one system where we have a shared platform for all kinds of mail— prescription drugs, packages, newspapers— because they all have this shared network we get these economies of scope.

The reason we’re the low-cost provider with affordable package delivery is that we’re going to every house anyway. We have all that other mail to deliver and that’s the genius of an universal postal system and that’s what’s at risk right now.”